Sacred Dirt

Image courtesy Ann Margaret Lewis.

Ann Margaret Lewis is part of the powerhouse behind the Catholic Writers Guild, she is an amazing classical singer, the author of two Sherlockian books (Murder in the Vatican and soon to be released The Watson Chronicles), and is also I recently learned a bando! I’ll let her explain…

Margaret asked me to take her space today to talk about dirt. Not just any dirt, though. Band dirt.

You see, today my alma mater and hers will be playing in the granddaddy bowl game of them all, the Rose Bowl. Margaret and I are both graduates of Michigan State University, or, “ol’ Moo U” as some like to call it. It is a land grant university, founded in 1855 for the study of agriculture. It makes perfect sense for Margaret to go there, considering her gardening vocation. Me? Not so much. I ended up majoring in English. My real reason for going there?  

The band.  

Fifteen years after the university was founded (1870), ten young men who were veterans of the U.S. Civil War formed what is what oldest marching band in the Big Ten, the Michigan Agricultural College Marching Band, or what we now call, the Spartan Marching Band. Now at 300 members the group is considered one of the finest in the country, contending with the likes of Ohio State as the premiere originators of highly technical band drills and spectacular musical sound. I fell in love with this marching band in high school when I visited on high school band day and I was determined to be a part of it. I just barely made it into the ranks that first year, 1984, sitting as an “alternate” in the baritone section. 

Image courtesy Ann Margaret Lewis.

But let’s talk dirt now. Today, thinking about the memories of my own years in the band, I pulled out my old band jacket to look at it, complete with its 1988 Rose Bowl patch. For a joke I actually tried to put it on. Tried…because I am not the size I was as a freshman bando. What struck me, though, was the grunge. The jacket’s white letters were darkened by the years I’d worn it marching through rain, snow, you name it. We didn’t clean our wool jackets, you see. Not from the moment we received them. Because to have a jacket with white letters and patch was to look like a “frosh,” a rookie. We wanted to look like vets. Some jackets, I recall, were nearly rags at the end of one’s four years. I remember my mother, the queen of clean, saying to me, “Ann, won’t you please wash that jacket? It looks awful.”  

I would reply, “No, Mom, you don’t understand, that’s sacred dirt! I can’t just wash it off.” 

And so the dirt is still there, turning the white to gray all these years later. Oh, yes, I did have it dry cleaned a couple times (the tradition is, it’s washed when MSU beats the University of Michigan). But it just won’t come clean now. In fact, I think if you’d managed to really clean this old jacket, it would fall apart. The dirt is holding it together. It’s a part of jacket now, just like the band is a part of me and it will never go away. You can take the girl out of the band, but you can’t take the band out of the girl. 

So, today, I’ll watch the 2013 Spartan Marching Band perform at the Tournament of Roses just as I did 26 years ago. It was blast— Disneyland, the Hollywood Bowl, a five and a half mile parade with lots of flowers, lots of organic floats and lots of horses (watch out, young bandos, they do leave presents for you in the street!).

Margaret asked me, when I told her I couldn’t wear my jacket anymore, if I could have my son put it on to model it. I said, “No. No one wears it but the one who earned it.” You see, that’s my dirt, there. My sacred dirt. And I’m darn proud of every smudge.  

Let’s go, State! 

You can follow the State Marching Band on Facebook here:

Or you can read about their traditions and history here:


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